This piece originally appeared in the Syracuse New Times.
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Ry Cooder is no pop star. He was restringing his guitar between sets at Jabberwocky and was asked how he felt about Boomer’s Story, his latest album.
“Oh, hey, I love that album,” he said. “Everybody else likes the first two, but I like Boomer the best.”
In star circles, that would be considered uncool. Cooder sounded as though he was talking about his new bike or electric train. He really loves his music, with an enthusiasm and honesty that comes through in his performance.
Cooder opened by tuning his guitar. Many musicians can tune for 10 minutes, telling tuning jokes all the way. Cooder took 10 seconds and his warmup was so pretty it seemed like his first number. He moved right into “Travelin’ Man,” intent on the music, not wasting time.
Cooder’s introductions weren’t there to give him a break, or the audience a laugh between songs. Songs such as “FDR in Trinidad” and “Blind Man Messed Up on Tear Gas” need an introduction; they are not your everyday number.
“Blind Man” was written by Sleepy John Estes after he was teargassed at a folk festival in Washington, D.C. He was carried off stage and taken to a doctor, who denied he was treating Estes for being gassed because the authorities would never gas a man who was innocent — much less blind and elderly. So Sleepy John wrote the tune and Ry passed it on.
Another Sleepy John tune, “Clean Your Own House,” was the answer to the question, “Why did I pay $2 at the door tonight?” It was his first mandolin number, and it was electrifying.
Ry Cooder plays hard. He squints, stomps, rocks, rolls and wails notes out of the mandolin the Gibson people never built into it. Like the blind man who wrote the song, he seemed unconcerned with how he looked while the song was coming through. It was an intense, powerful performance that drew spontaneous whoops and shouts of encouragement from the audience. After “Clean Your Own House,” the audience belonged to Ry Cooder.
Before the mandolin encore, Cooder offered a ride downtown (a pearl of a prize) to whomever could call what verse he’d break a string on. There were no takers. The string joined its ancestors on the third verse.
Cooder talked about how he got started musically (listening to Josh White records), how he had moved away from the solo performer role to do studio work, and how, now, having learned his way around the studio and developed his music, he’s back to performing on his own.
During his time as a studio musician, Cooder played with a lot of different people, sometimes changing artists in mid-day. “Yeah, we did the (Mick) Jagger thing, the ‘Memo from Turner’ thing, and the (Randy) Newman thing the same day; that was the same band; Jagger mailed in the tape of his vocal and we just laid the music under it and then we did the Newman session.”
Cooder picks up some really obscure material, a task he works at. “I’m just always listening for songs, you know; I don’t know much about current recording or that kind of thing; I’m just always looking for songs. My three albums were like collections of my favorite songs. Now, I’ve recorded all my old favorites and on my next album I’m gonna have to diversify and include some new types of material. I don’t want to do another album of farmer tunes. Not that there’s anything wrong with farmer tunes, but people’d hear it and say, ‘Oh, another nostalgia trip’ and I don’t want that. Now I’m trying to spread it out.”
Cooder’s bottleneck amazingly enough is actually a bottleneck. “You can see where it’s broken. United Airlines dropped my guitar case and broke it. But I taped it and it works fine. It’s the only one I travel with, you see. It’s made from a vinegar bottle and it’s a good one.”
Ry appeared solo in Syracuse, although he does work with a band. “I’m flying the studio band out to Boston for the final show of the tour. But for most jobs, it just costs too much money. (Jim) Keltner’s expensive, but he’s the only drummer I’d work with, the only one I can communicate with. He’s just terrific, but then he’s always flying off with George Harrison or somebody.”
Even for Cooder, money is a problem. “It’s a struggle on these short tours to make enough money to survive. Expenses’ll just eat you up. Planes, rent-a-cars, hotel rooms. I toured with Arlo Guthrie once for five weeks. I can’t stay fresh that long. You get mechanical after a while. So I just go out on a lot of these shorter tours. Arlo goes out twice a year and makes just a barrel of money; Arlo’s got his act down pat, so getting mechanical doesn’t matter to him.”
What does Cooder do when he isn’t recording or performing? “I sit around the house and try to take it easy, but it’s hard. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another; it it isn’t this, it’s something else.”
Hearing that from a man who watched Brian Jones (of the Rolling Stones) crying in the corner of a recording studio was very sobering, very real. Ry Cooder is a musician trying to stay fresh, trying to take it easy.
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My memories of the day also include the fact that Ry missed his wife so much he spent all the money he made on every gig calling home; he was the kind of guy who was happy to ride in the back seat of the car; the evening of his performance, he patted Mr. Clete, my dog, on the head. He was one of the most genuinely nice people I ever met, in or out of the music business, and almost 40 years later I’m still enjoying his music.